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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Baseball

Even Bleeding Red, White and Blue, Lasorda Might Have a Minor Problem Trying to Win a Medal with This Team

September 10, 2000|BILL DWYRE

* OVERVIEW--This is only the third time that baseball has been a full medal sport, starting with Barcelona in 1992 and followed by Atlanta in '96.

But it is the first time that professional players have been allowed in, and while major league baseball in the United States was happy with that Olympic sanction, it was also presented with a problem. Specifically, could it, or should it, consider breaking up its season for a couple of weeks so top stars of the game in the U.S. could compete?

Unlike pro hockey, which opted to do so by closing down for a few weeks in the middle of its '97-98 season for the Nagano Olympics, major league baseball chose to play a role in the selection of a team from its minor league ranks. It also chose, as the team manager, popular and internationally known former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda has taken on the task, which some have likened to the 1980 U.S. hockey team of fuzzy-faced college kids taking on the grizzled-pro Russians, with usual Lasorda rah-rah.

"We'll play hard every minute of every game," he said. "We'll scratch and scramble and make our country proud of us." Lasorda got his first look at the team Sept. 2, in a workout in San Diego. Hours after the workout, they all flew to Australia for a couple of weeks of exhibition games, leading to their opener against Japan on Sept. 17.

"One of the hardest things will be just learning their names," Lasorda said.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--This is an eight-team tournament. The United States qualified with a runner-up finish to Cuba in the '99 Pan-Am Games. Cuba is the tournament favorite, although Japan has a team sprinkled with players from its major leagues, including one pitcher allowed to take a break from the Seibu Lions, who are in the middle of a pennant race, to play in the Olympics. His record is 14-4.

The European qualifiers were Italy and Holland, the Oceania qualifier was South Africa, and the host Australians also got a spot. The other qualifier from Asia, along with Japan, is Korea, which will field a team of all-stars from its major leagues.

Lasorda's best players, according to late August statistics, are pitchers Roy Oswalt (15-6 with two minor league teams) and Jon Rauch (15-4 with two minor league teams), and outfielder Ernie Young (33 homers and 95 runs batted in) and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (.329 and 89 RBIs). In addition, Lasorda's team includes former major league veteran Pat Borders, the 37-year-old catcher now in the minors at Durham, who was the most valuable player of the 1992 World Series for Toronto.

* BEST STORY--Lasorda, who privately was unhappy about the potential cooperation of some of the major league teams in this endeavor while the Olympic front man for major league baseball, Sandy Alderson, was spinning a pretty public picture of MLB's unity on this, might have taken matters into his own hands last week.

A pretty good young pitcher in the Dodger farm system, Luke Prokepec, was scheduled to head home for Australia at the end of his minor league season. There, he would pitch for his national team. But, lo and behold, the Dodgers called Prokepec up to the big team for the last month of the season, all the way from double-A ball.

Probably a coincidence.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Sean Burroughs, 20, Long Beach.

* KEY DATES--Saturday, U.S. vs. Japan. Sept. 18, U.S. vs. South Africa. Sept. 19, U.S. vs. Netherlands. Sept. 20, U.S. vs. South Korea. Sept. 22, U.S. vs. Italy. Sept. 23, U.S. vs. Cuba. Sept. 24, U.S. vs. Australia. Sept. 25, semifinals. Sept. 27, gold-medal game.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fast Fact

* The United States has not won a gold medal in its two tries when the sport was awarding full medals, in 1992 and '96. The Americans, with Troy Glaus and Mark Kotsay, won bronze in '96.

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